By Mark Thomas
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The Holocaust: An Unfinished History by Dan Stone review—how Nazi ideology drove genocide

Why have the horrors of the Holocaust failed to prevent the rise of a new far right in Europe—or further genocide?
The Holocaust: An Unfinished History by Dan Stone

The Holocaust: An Unfinished History by Dan Stone

Reading Dan Stone’s new book while a genocide takes place in Gaza is a brutal reminder that the Nazi murder of six million Jews didn’t mark the end of state-driven mass killings. 

Nor, as he notes, has the rise of awareness and commemoration of the Holocaust permanently stopped a return of the far right and fascist forces.

Stone is the director of the Royal Holloway’s Holocaust Research Institute in London. His book, The Holocaust: An Unfinished History, provides a fine and readable overview of the Holocaust. But he aims to do more than that. 

He asks, does the idea of the Holocaust as an “industrial genocide” still hold and does it risk obscuring some of the horrors of the Holocaust? 

The book calls for a renewed focus on the Nazis’ ideology, which incubated genocidal fantasies long before circumstances allowed their implementation. It looks at how post Cold War research has shed new light on the extent of collaboration in the Holocaust by Nazi Germany’s allies. 

And it asks why the Holocaust’s importance to Western identity has failed to prevent the rise of a new far right in the 21st century—or further genocides. 

Trauma and “industrial genocide”

Stone suggests that a sanitised image of an efficient, bureaucratic factory killing process—particularly associated with the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp—risks losing the brutal trauma of Holocaust victims. He argues this is, at best, only part of the reality.

The Holocaust is generally identified with the mass killings that took place in the Nazi extermination camps. That was exemplified by the three camps designed to murder the two million Jews of Nazi-occupied Poland— Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka—and Auschwitz-Birkenau. That’s where the Nazis murdered the Jewish populations of much of Central and Western Europe. 

Such camps murdered around 2.7 million Jews—along with tens of thousands of Roma and Sinti people targeted for extermination. But millions were killed elsewhere and by other methods too. 

Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union in the second half of 1941. This was understood by the Nazis as an “ideological war of extermination” against a “Judeo Bolshevik” enemy.

It saw the onset of the Holocaust. SS mobile killing units, known as the Einsatzgruppen, were deployed to kill Jewish populations as they came under Nazi control through mass shootings. The most notorious episode was the massacre at Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev in late September 1941. Einsatzgruppe C, aided by a local Ukrainian militia, shot 33,000 Jews over two days. 

Overall, this “Holocaust by bullets” was responsible for 1.5 million Jewish deaths between late 1941 and the spring of 1942. 

In addition, another half a million Jews died from starvation and disease in the ghettos the Nazis created initially in occupied Poland and later in the western Soviet Union. When the Nazis “liquidated” the ghettos, they deported those still alive to the extermination camps. 

Here, they were usually immediately murdered. But the SS selected some to go to slave labour “subcamps” to be rapidly worked to death. 

And from late 1944, as the Russian army advanced westwards towards Germany, the Nazis evacuated the camps. They forced the 750,000 or so surviving Jewish inmates onto “death marches”, sometimes over vast distances in the winter. This claimed another 250,000 victims, often shot by SS guards when they collapsed and could no longer walk.  

Stone also points to the “low tech” and often improvised nature of the organisation of the extermination camps themselves, with the gas chambers often breaking down, for example. It wasn’t a smoothly efficient killing operation even here.

Stone suggests that a mistaken impression of an efficient mechanical killing process has obscured a much more brutal, bloody and traumatic reality for the victims. So the notion of industrial genocide only captures part of the reality of the Holocaust.

Stone is right to note that the gas chambers—and gas vans in some cases—of Auschwitz and the other extermination centres weren’t the only method the Nazis employed. And there were limits to the sophistication of the technology they used. 

But the process of being forcibly deported in vastly overcrowded train carriages without food, water or sanitation for hours or even days, to then be herded into gas chambers, was vastly traumatic. It’s hard to see how that was any less brutal than being rounded up and shot in Kiev or Odessa, or starved to death in a ghetto in Poland or Belarus. 

More importantly, perhaps, the Nazis created a vast killing apparatus. This stretched from the mass population transfers and Jewish ghettos to mobile death squads able to murder hundreds of thousands and the creation of gassing facilities. 

Its killing capacity was staggering, whatever the limits of the technology deployed. The sheer horrifying ferocity of that killing mechanism can be seen in the most intensive phase of the Holocaust from August to October 1942. 

During these three months, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz and the Einsatzgruppen combined murdered approximately 1.47 million people. As Stone comments, “This rate of murder makes this period of the Holocaust probably the fastest rate of genocidal killing in history.” Over a mere 56 days in the summer of 1944, 434,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. The Nazis murdered four fifths on arrival.

The notion of an “industrial genocide”, even with the qualifications Stone points to, still captures the unprecedented reality of the Holocaust.

Ideology of genocidal fantasy

Stone suggests that grasping the nature of the Holocaust requires a renewed emphasis on the Nazis’ ideology. This has, he argues, been downplayed from two directions. 

One was an initial post-war tendency to deny any coherence to the Nazis’ ideas. This allowed liberal and conservative historians to avoid noting that Nazi ideas weren’t particularly novel but represented a radicalisation of ruling class ideas of nationalism, imperialism and race. 

A second approach, which has at times downplayed the role of ideology, emphasises how external factors such as the war drove the Holocaust. Such “functionalist” arguments were deployed to reject the notion that the Nazis had a worked-out plan in 1920-21 to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.

Stone says that the Nazis didn’t have a developed programme for genocide worked out in advance. But he says we need to take seriously their ideological motivation—which always harboured a genocidal potential capable of being unleashed under certain circumstances. 

“The actual process of arriving at a genocidal programme was in many ways ad hoc and heavily dependent on the military situation,” he writes. “Yet that does not mean that the murder of the Jews was an accident.”

For Stone, “race thinking” is the cornerstone of Nazi ideology. In the form of intense antisemitism, this involved a vision of an apocalyptic, life-or-death struggle between “Aryans” and Jews. 

For the Nazis, Jews were the hidden hand orchestrating German defeat in the First World War and foreign domination through the post war Treaty of Versailles. 

So national survival was dependent on eliminating Jews. Stone says the Nazis were “a movement which promised national regeneration, the end to national humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and the elimination of the enemy within”. 

In a perverse reversal—so often a feature of genocidal regimes—the Nazis projected their genocidal fantasies onto their victims. This meant the Nazis could, grotesquely, conceive of the Holocaust as a defensive, pre-emptive response to an existential threat.

“The need for living space for the German people necessitated the elimination of social and political enemies of all sorts,” writes Stone. “But above all” it required “the life-and-death fight to annihilate the puppet-master who sought to destroy Aryan civilisation: the Jew” 

Hitler and the Nazis’ vision for German survival involved national expansion—Lebensraum or “living space”—in the east and national regeneration through racial “purification”. This would create a supposedly homogeneous and harmonious national community, known as the “Volksgemeinschaft”. 

The Nazi notions of antisemitism, empire and the racial community were inseparable. Stone writes, “A Nazi empire in the east—replicating in Hitler’s mind the British Empire in India or, more emphatically, the spread of ‘white’ civilisation in the United States—was of necessity antisemitic. 

“The Nazis regarded Soviet communism as synonymous with Jews (‘Judaeo-Bolshevism’). And the racial community at home was founded on the radical exclusion of Jews.”

The only way such a worldview could be realised was through genocidal destruction.

A missing argument

Stone, though he spends next to no time addressing it, would see a Marxist analysis as one of the trends that has not taken Nazi ideology seriously. 

He comments, almost in passing, that the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch was “unusual” in taking Nazis ideology seriously. He says Bloch didn’t dismiss it “merely as a diversionary tactic unleashed by big business to stop the masses from recognising their true interests”. 

The Stalinist Communist Parties viewed fascism as simply an instrument conjured from above by the ruling class. By contrast, Stalin’s greatest Marxist opponent, Leon Trotsky, developed a brilliant analysis of fascism as a counter-revolutionary mass movement from below. 

It’s based on sections of the middle class, driven to a frenzy by deep social crises, and then draws sections of unorganised workers behind it. Fascism doesn’t just develop as a mass electoral force, but as a powerful street militia. 

Fascist movements become a “battering ram” in Trotsky’s words, directed at utterly destroying all forms of working class organisation—revolutionary, reformist, even Christian. Such a movement is held together through the kind of ideological fanaticism that Stone points to. 

But Stone misses how the Nazis’ antisemitism was bound up with blaming Jews for the ills of capitalism—or rather the problems facing the middle classes in an era of crises. 

In interwar Germany small business owners found themselves squeezed out by monopolies and indebted to the big banks. Middle class professionals saw their pensions and savings destroyed by hyperinflation. 

The Nazis presented themselves as revolutionaries who would eradicate unhealthy “parasitic”, finance capital linked to international markets. This would leave healthy “productive” national capital in place and able to thrive. It was organised labour that would be suppressed by the Nazis, not capitalism.

Stone hints at some of this. He notes the differences between the older European antisemitic religious stereotypes of the medieval period and the antisemitism of the Nazis. The Nazis drew on the older antisemitism, but radicalised it to make “the abstract Jew” the “embodiment of modernity’s ills”. 

Stone’s argument would be strengthened by grasping Nazism as a counter-revolutionary movement that the ruling class turned to in a time of crisis. Its intense racism was bound up with its fake “revolutionary” rhetoric. 

The Nazis’ murderous, ideological fantasies weren’t free floating—they were anchored in the capitalist system.

A continent-wide crime: collaboration in the Holocaust 

Nazi Germany was the driving force of the Holocaust. But research since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s has revealed the scale of other states’ participation in the Holocaust. For Stone, this means recasting the Holocaust as a European-wide crime, led by Nazi Germany, with many perpetrators. 

The participation of several states allied with the Nazis was critical to enabling a scale of killing that would not have been possible otherwise. As Stone writes, “Without the impetus provided by the Nazi regime, the Holocaust would not have happened.

“But without the support of willing collaborators across Europe, the Germans’ programme to murder the Jews of Europe would have been far less successful.” 

Far from being puppets of the Nazis, Stone insists that states allied to the Nazis had varying degrees of autonomy.

Vichy France, Jozef Tiso’s Slovak State and Croatia’s Ustasa regime all instigated laws to persecute Jews. They all took measures to deport and murder Jews pre-emptively—without any instructions from the Nazis.

Croatia, for example, established an extermination camp at Jasenovac—the only one that wasn’t operated by Germany. The regime murdered 70,000 people there. A majority were Serbs, but it included between 12,000 to 20,000 Jews and 15,000 Roma people. 

In the Netherlands, Norway and Hungary civil servants and police rounded up and deported Jews to help the Nazis’ plans. Without such cooperation, the Nazis would have found it much harder to murder the local Jewish populations.

For example, something like 20,000 police, National Guard and civil servants in Hungary were involved in identifying, rounding up and deporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The few hundred SS members under Adolf Eichmann sent to Hungary simply could not have achieved this on their own. 

The capacity of many of the Nazi’s allies to pursue an “independent course” towards the Holocaust is clearest, Stone says, with Romania’s fascist regime of Ion Antonescu. This “veered from enthusiastic participation, indeed implementation of its own killing measures without German involvement, to refusing to deport large Jewish populations”.

The regime deported the Jewish populations to uninhabitable areas and drove them into forced labour. But it also undertook direct massacres. Indeed, the largest single massacre during the Holocaust was the mass shooting of up to 54,000 people, mostly Ukrainian Jews at Bogdanovka from late December 1941 to mid-January 1942. It was carried out by Romanian police, Ukrainian auxiliaries and local ethnic German militia. 

As Stone notes, this massacre is almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world. Then, having launched a Holocaust of its own, in the summer of 1942 the regime stopped it, sensing that German defeat was the likely outcome of the war and that posing as a protector of Jews could benefit the regime in the post war world.

Why did these states—if they did have some independence from the Nazis—collaborate in genocide? Stone explains that, for regimes allied to Nazi Germany, “persecuting, expelling and killing Jews fitted with long-held nationalist aspirations to create ethnically homogenous nation-states”. 

As the Slovak interior minister Alexander Mach declared in 1942, “We want to rid ourselves of the Jews with the help of the Germans.”  

In other words, the Nazis were able to mobilise a wider dynamic of counter-revolution, being pushed through by other regimes. In turn, this allowed the Holocaust, though driven by Nazi Germany, to take place on a much greater scale than if it had depended on the resources of the Nazi state alone. 

Holocaust memory wars

Stone argues that Holocaust awareness and education have become much more widespread since the end of the Cold War. 

He says it has become central to Western identity as an embodiment of a proclaimed commitment to human rights and internationalism. 

Yet such liberal hopes have collapsed. “If, by the 1990s, Holocaust consciousness seemed destined to be channelled in favour of human rights, cosmopolitanism and progressive ideas, the twentieth-first century this confident narrative has been derailed,” he writes. 

He offers two reasons for this. For Stone, there was an overestimation of “the extent to which Holocaust consciousness might change the world for the better”. He argues that “socio-economic tensions” will always outweigh liberal education. 

“The fact is that Holocaust education goes out of the window if people feel their life chances are narrowing,” he writes. And “nothing in the end can stop people from supporting these dark forces in times of crisis.”

This is far too fatalistic. Fascism can indeed grow in an era of crises, but so too can the left and anti-fascism. Which wins out is not predetermined. It depends on mass resistance, politics and tactics, and socialist organisation. These are questions that Stone doesn’t touch on in this book. 

Today, many states have sought to use the Holocaust for nationalist agendas in ways that can feed the far right. Stone writes, “The use of the Holocaust to further nationalist agendas, to facilitate geopolitical alliances on the far right or to ‘expose’ progressive thinkers for their supposed antisemitism or anti-Israel bias is now a familiar part of the landscape.” 

So the Polish government passed a law in 2018 banning any accusation that any Poles in any way helped the Holocaust, whatever the historical evidence says.

Stone notes also mentions the Tory government’s demand that universities in Britain adopt the International Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) flawed definition of antisemitism. This conflates anti-semitism with criticism of Israel and so silences anti-Zionist voices. 

The German parliament passed a resolution equating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction campaign against Israel as antisemitic. Former chancellor Angela Merkel invoked the Holocaust to justify the defence of Israel as Germany’s very “Staatsräson”—“reason of state”. 

And we witness the grotesque way Western states invoke the memory of the Holocaust to justify support for the Israeli genocide in Gaza. 

Western states present themselves as having learnt the lessons of the Holocaust while projecting genocidal and antisemitic desires onto their rivals—and in particular onto Muslims. In turn, they then use this to justify a Western-backed genocide.

Finally, Stone seems to go back on his worry that the Holocaust offers no lessons and instead pointedly notes,

“The Holocaust is not a lesson about the dangers of bullying, nor even a tale of the dangers of hatred,” he writes. “It is a warning that states, when elites become desperate to hold on to power, can do terrible, traumatic things…”

And, during times of intense crises, desperate ruling classes can strike bargains with powerful fascist movements as happened in Nazi Germany. This gives fascism access to the state machine, making genocides on the terrifying scale and murderous intensity of the Holocaust possible.

Until capitalism, with its inherent crises and racism, is swept away genocide will continue to be a recurrent feature of our world.

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